Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Le1f Hey

By Tom Breihan / March 11, 2014

Chances are great that you, the reader sitting at home, give barely half a fuck (if that) about SXSW. Maybe you think it looks like fun, maybe you’re hoping to go one year, maybe you’ve been before, but the particulars of which barbecue place has the scariest line and whose RSVP list filled up the first are not going to rivet you. You just want to know what music is worth your attention. It’s not your fault the entire music industry has taken this week to descend on a mid-sized Texan city to gossip and drink and see bands and schmooze, but that is the reality. And given that so many people within the music business intend to spend the next five or six days eating tacos and nursing hangovers, very few of them want to go through the hassle of actually releasing music this week, and so we’re looking at a new-release slate as uninspiring as any we’ve seen since the first week of the year. So this week’s bad/weird news is that this week’s Album Of The Week isn’t an album at all; it’s a short EP, and one of that EP’s five songs is two years old. But the good news is that Le1f’s Hey is still really great.

Le1f, if you don’t know about him, is a young, snarly, bursting-with-personality rapper from New York. After releasing three always-fascinating, frequently-wonderful mixtapes, Hey is his first record that costs actual money, and he’s releasing it on Terrible Records, the label co-founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. That’s an odd fit for any rapper, but it’s hard to imagine a place where Le1f would fit in neatly. And Terrible has, at the very least, proven to be a welcoming place for stylish synthesists who use pop music as a playground: Solange, Twin Shadow, Kindness, Blood Orange, Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek. Le1f is gay, and that shouldn’t matter, but it does. For those of us who have been paying attention for long enough, the idea of a powerful gay rap voice seemed like a faraway dream at first, but now there’s this whole range of tough, flamboyant queer snarlers on the genre’s margins. (They shouldn’t have to be on the margins, but anyway it’s a start.) And Le1f, though he’s a great rapper, isn’t a great rapper who happens to be gay; he’s got a jagged dance-music influence and a glammy playfulness that ties him, at least in the abstract, to New York’s vogue-ball scene. But he’s also leery of being held up as some paragon of an imagined queer-rap scene, and he gets some of his best lines from that tension. A few second into Hey, he offers this: “Ask a gay question? Here’s a black answer.” How badass is that?

The two-year-old song on Hey is “Wut,” which originally showed up on Le1f’s Dark York mixtape. It’s here because it’s his hit; its brain-melting video is still the greatest and most widely-circulated thing Le1f has ever done. But its presence is also an encouraging sign because it shows that Le1f knows that songs like this are what he does best. “Wut” is a banger, an elemental horn-stomp with the sort of chorus that demands to be barked out of open car windows. When I saw Le1f at SXSW last year, he led into that song with the intro from N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug,” which was perfect; the two tracks are a lot closer than you’d expect. The other tracks on Dark York were splashy, often inscrutable art-rap, but you could feel “Wut” in your bones. It’s great to hear it again on Hey, and it’s great that the other four songs on the EP work alongside it.

Le1f has become a much better rapper since he made “Wut”; the track’s one double-time verse was slurry and mumbled, and he’s gotten better at technical command and hard enunciation and personality-projection. But he’s never really equaled that track’s all-out intensity, and I’m happy to report that the other songs on Hey come close. “Buzz” has a nagging synth line and a jittery, disorienting drum-line. “Hey” has some of the best use of handclaps this side of DJ Mustard. “Wassup” sounds like it was made for Lil Wayne circa-Tha Carter III, and that’s also a great role model for Le1f. (It’s amazingly easy to imagine Wayne starting a track by intoning, “Ooh yeah, girl, Rumspringa Rumspringa” the way Le1f does here.) “Boom,” the best new song here, has a relentlessly clubby forward drive, and it leads into “Wut” perfectly. And where “Wut” had Le1f slyly claiming “I’m getting light in my loafers,” Boom has him getting even more confrontational: “How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep? How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep?” But the most lyrically badass moment on the album comes when Le1f pushes the Lil B/A$AP Rocky “I be that pretty motherfucker” line of thinking way past its natural conclusion: “I’m a pretty nigga, I’m a sphinx, I’m a forest nymph, I’m a water sprite.” And while I’d love to live in the sort of world where Le1f jumped on tracks with Meek Mill or Young Thug, I do live in one where he’s signed with the Grizzly Bear guy’s label and claimed mythical-creature status, and that’s pretty great, too.

Hey is out now on Terrible/XL.

Other notable releases this week:

• Elbow’s tender, emotive, proggy The Take Off And Landing Of Everything.
• Metronomy’s starry-eyed, glam-rocking Love Letters.
• Former Galaxie 500/Luna frontman Dean Wareham’s Jim James-produced self-titled solo debut.
• Tensnake’s guest-heavy dance odyssey Glow.
• Young Money’s Rise Of An Empire compilation.
• The Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol. II comp, on which underground metal heavyweights pay tribute to the songwriting legend.
• The star-packed Divergent soundtrack.
• Chlöe Howl’s Rumour EP.
• Also, today is 3/11, and 311 have an album out today, and I guess that’s notable?